The Heart of the Matter (1948) is a book about a man caught in the vortex of a moral crisis – and, ultimately, torn apart and consumed by the contradictory demands of his conscience.
The novel is set in an unnamed British colony in the West Coast of Africa during World War II. Our protagonist, Henry Scobie (Major Scobie, or, as his wife calls him, Ticki) is a man in his late forties who works as police deputy commissioner in a small town. He has been a model inspector in the West Coast for fifteen years, and his strict sense of morality and duty has remained above question during all his years of service – to the point where no one in the local community really likes him nor his wife, the bookish Louise. Both are devout Catholics, their only child died some years before, and now they spend their time together tiptoeing around each other’s misery.
When a new inspector, Wilson, arrives in town, everything starts to change. He immediately strikes up a friendship with Louise over their shared interest in poetry. Shortly afterwards, a group of survivors of a shipwreck also arrives in town, and Scobie starts to feel drawn to one of them. His demise begins when, driven by his sense of empathy and compassion, Scobie refuses to report a hidden letter found in a Portuguese ship. From then on, we watch him as he is gradually caught in a tangled web of moral degradation.
Throughout Scobie’s personal fall from grace, you throw us along in the violent vortex of his moral crisis: he is tormented by religious doubt, a guilty conscience, his austere sense of integrity, and a heavy sense of responsibility. Scobie is plagued by the inescapable contradictions that pervade moral thought when one decides to engage with it in a serious way: should our protagonist infringe a duty in order to remain true to his personal sense of compassion? Should he abandon his lover, so as to remain loyal to his wife – and, ultimately, to his faith? Is he allowed to feel relief at his daughter’s death? Is it wrong of him to distrust his lifelong servant, Ali? Should he feel compassion for his enemy?
Scobie is torn between his sense of the moral rule and the complexities of his moral sentiment, as he is between his heart and his mind. Like a 20th-century Antigone, Scobie is divided between the justice of the city and the justice of his gods – in his case, the teachings of the Catholic Church and the demands of Christian faith; the individual conscience and the demands of the institution; God’s rules and God’s mercy. In short, he is torn between the matter and the heart of the matter. Could the violation of one’s duties in the face of God be ever justified by the fulfilment of one’s personal sense of duty? “I know what the Church says. The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn’t know what goes on in a single human heart.”
The title of the novel points out directly to the protagonist’s inner conflict: only compassion – not knowledge – can lead us to the heart of the matter; and, once there, what we find is mercy. “If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter?”
Caught in a moral dilemma and pulled simultaneously in two contradictory directions, Scobie chooses to avoid taking sides, believing this to be the only way to free everyone from himself. He is doomed by his own fractured sense of responsibility: like a fallen angel mistakenly trying to replace God’s mercy with his own fallible – and therefore, perhaps, stricter – moral sense of retribution. It’s even left unclear, whether Scobie was led astray by his goodness, or by his pride.
Incapable to feel compassion for his own fallibility and to reconcile himself with the fact that he could never be completely good – and thereby unable to accept a God as fallible, fractured and uncertain as himself, he consciously chooses evil and sin as rejects God altogether, as a form of self-punishment. Scobie thinks he loves people more than he does God; Father Rank, on the other hand, believes that our protagonist loved God more than anyone else. However, perhaps both of them are mistaken: perhaps, Scobie only loved himself in the end.
The atmosphere outside is as bleak as Scobie’s inner turmoil: from early on, we feel a sense of impending doom. All the characters in the book are, in a way or another, locked in a kind of incommunicable loneliness: what they think is hidden about themselves is in fact known by everyone; and what they think is clear about what they really are is never really grasped by the ones who should. All the characters are more or less unaware of their inability to understand one another, and all of them fail in their endeavours in the end.
Worse still, they are stuck in a place where it is difficult to distinguish between an enemy and a true friend, and where everyone seems to be either under surveillance or caught in a web of malicious gossip. We feel an ever-increasing sense of claustrophobia: your characters are stuck in a town they cannot leave; in an endless, suffocating summer; in unhappy marriages they cannot terminate; in grief, anger, and a strong sense of defeat; in incommunicable loneliness; in desire, or in a love they cannot show nor fully embrace; and, worse still, they are stuck in moral demands they already know they will never be able to fulfil.
Instead on pontificating on morality and religion, you prefer to put your finger on the sore spot, conveying a more complex, nuanced picture of faith as a process continually permeated by doubt: good and bad are not only mixed, but also constantly shifting positions. Scobie’s ultimate sacrifice was both the most unforgivable sin and a result of his overwhelming faith. Plagued by the horror of inflicting pain, he finds himself in a situation where, no matter what he does, someone will inevitably be hurt; he will pay with everything he has, and yet it will be in vain. Believing to have reached the heart of the matter, our protagonist will prove to be in fact very far from it: caught in a tangle of opposing forces, Scobie will remain forever oblivious to the fact that mercy, not retribution, is the only way out.
“He walked away, feeling an extraordinary happiness, but this he would not remember as happiness, as he would remember setting out in the darkness, in the rain, alone.” – Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
“Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. It is, one is told, the unforgivable sin, but it is a sin the corrupt or evil man never practises. He always has hope. He never reaches the freezing-point of knowing absolute failure. Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation.” – Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
“The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being – it is a symbol for mathematicians and the philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.” – Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
“Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, evil – or else an absolute ignorance.” – Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
“People talk about the courage of condemned men walking to the place of execution: sometimes it needs as much courage to walk with any kind of bearing towards another person’s habitual misery.” – Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
About the book
- Penguin Classics, 1991, 272 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1948
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- The novel won the 1948 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. In 2012, it was shortlisted for the Best of the James Tait Black
- In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Heart of the Matter 40th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century
- In 2005, the book was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 onwards
- The novel was made into a film in 1953, directed by George More O’Ferrall (IMDb)